Bonus Article: Amnesia
As promised, I’m thrilled to offer an original “50 Years” article today on one of the many fascinating games missed in the main run of the series. If you’re just joining the Substack, find out more about the 50 Years of Text Games book here!
Written by Thomas M. Disch
Programmed by Kevin Bentley
First Published: 1986
Language: King Edward
Launch Platform: Apple II/MS-DOS
You wake up feeling wonderful.
But also, in some indefinable way, strange.
Slowly, as you lie there on the cool bedspread, it dawns on you that you have absolutely no idea where you are. A hotel room, by the look of it. But with the curtains drawn. You don't know in what city, or even what country…
Kevin Bentley woke up feeling awful, pulling back the curtains of his new apartment in San Mateo, California. Only a year out of high school, the New Jersey native had been hired by local software company Cognetics and turned loose on the project of simply “implementing” a script by well-known science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch: turning it into a fully playable interactive fiction game. No one at Cognetics—or at Harper & Row, Disch's publisher—seemed to think this ought to be too big a problem: the publisher had already prepared box art and marketing material before Bentley was even assigned to the project.
But a static script is not a playable game. There was way too much of Disch's prose to fit in the two-disk budget the game had been allocated; the programming language he'd been asked to work in was a cut-down version of Forth, not well-suited for text adventures; the original publisher and then the author himself had pulled out of the project; and now Bentley had been shipped to the other side of the country so the game's new publisher, Electronic Arts, could keep an eye on him and make sure their game got finished. EA had never published a text adventure, and they never would again. Despite this, they had opinions. They were concerned Disch's theatrical structure wasn't “gamey” enough and what it needed was a bunch of hunger and exhaustion timers, more aggressive copy protection (but worked into the fictional world, please), and points. Maybe three separate kinds of points. Oh, and the game needed to include an explorable version of Manhattan with four thousand rooms and a working subway system. And also, why wasn't it finished yet?
After Amnesia was finally released, more than a full year later, no one involved in the project—not Bentley, not Disch, not Cognetics—would ever make another computer game again.
The project had not been Disch’s idea, but his publisher’s. In 1984, inspired in part by the worrying successes of Infocom (in particular, their bestselling game based on Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), dozens of major companies in the games, entertainment, and publishing sectors were investigating the potential of interactive books. That year saw a wave of half-baked attempts to make playable versions of bestsellers from authors including Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, Anne McCaffrey, and Terry Pratchett. They were called everything from “electronic novels” or “compunovels” to “bookware” and even “living literature,” and they were almost universally awful, in part because most of their developers knew nothing about making interactive fiction, and also because few of those authors were actually involved in creating the digital “adaptations” of their works.
In the midst of this hype about literature's interactive future, Harper & Row looked at their recent slate of authors and picked one to approach with the idea of doing an interactive book. Tom Disch was introduced in the 1995 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction with this description, much of which might also accurately describe his sole digital game:
Because of his intellectual audacity, the chillingly distanced mannerism of his narrative art, the austerity of the pleasures he affords, and the fine cruelty of his wit, Disch was perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers.
Disch had been a leading voice in the New Wave science fiction of the 60s, part of a genre reinventing itself as a vehicle for cultural introspection, not merely escapism. His short stories, and novels like The Genocides, Camp Concentration, and 334, married an often overwhelming bleakness with a keen awareness of the effects of technological and social change on the human experience: he “steadfastly refuses to offer any easy solutions,” wrote one biographer, “only razor-sharp observation.” While Disch had moved away from SF by the 80s to publish in more mainstream genres, and knew nothing about computer games, he was intrigued by H&R's offer. Rather than collaborate with a game company, Disch went off and wrote a 436-page script, essentially a transcript for an imaginary game. To his credit, the script is remarkably comprehensive, thinking seriously about possible states the game might get into and including responses for hundreds of alternative things players might try typing, down to the level of pedestrian error messages. Few “bookware” authors had come even close to such a detailed level of involvement.
The game opens with a series of set pieces, which Cognetics president Charles Kreitzberg likened to “a series of stage sets, much as you might have for a play.” Your character wakes up naked in a hotel room with no memory of who he is or how he got there. The game cheekily prompts you to describe what you think you look like, but as soon as you look at yourself in a mirror all your guesses are revealed to be wrong: a sort of anti-character creation. You suffer through a series of largely pre-scripted misadventures attempting first to find some clothes, then to escape the shotgun wedding awaiting you in the hotel's lobby, eventually emerging broke and confused on the streets of Manhattan in a white tuxedo.
The prose is not Disch's best—he called it “a very lightweight piece of work” at the time—but the author's famous dry wit and bleak sensibilities shine through in places:
Channel 4 has a news program. The President of El Salvador wants more money for his country's defense. The President and the Soviet Union have unkind things to say about each other. Two people died in a fire in the Bronx. The weather will remain sunny.
Channel 5 has ads for soap and toothpaste and floor wax. A talk show host then resumes his interview with an actress starring in a new prime-time soap opera, who feels that her role is helping her to grow in unexpected directions.
The story is most memorable for the way it contrasts a series of grimly pedestrian challenges (panhandling to find enough money to eat; finding a safe place on the streets of Manhattan to sleep) with a screwball plot involving mistaken identity, jilted lovers, Australian sheep ranches, and copious flashbacks. The game aggressively wants you to remain confused and disoriented: there are opportunities to “settle” for a particular identity where your character is described as going on to live a happy life, but the narrator clearly disapproves that you took the easy way out; while if you try to dial one of the numbers from an address book before you've found it in the game (perhaps because you've restored from an earlier save), the response is equally dismissive:
Now how did you happen to think of just that number? Has your memory been restored?
[If answer is YES:]
Well, that was a quick recovery. Now that you can remember exactly how you got into this situation, it's clear what you've got to do. Do it. And congratulations!
[End of Game]
The point of Amnesia is clearly to be confused—to suffer—and yet the game would become perhaps a more brutal instantiation of that concept than its creator intended. From interviews about the game during its development, it's clear that while Disch was genuinely excited about the concept of an interactive story, he was not particularly interested in changing his writing style to accommodate one: “the user’s freedom is, as in life, largely an illusion. ...I control what is actually said. That’s the chief thing.”
As Kevin Bentley would realize, a linear script is an awkward starting point for a digital game. Most existing interactive fiction had been designed from the ground-up, as it were: encoded chiefly as a simulation of space, objects, movement, and properties, a platform upon which a story driven by the player's exploration could be told. Amnesia's design fundamentally assumes a different model: “nodes” (as Disch calls them in his script) which can be transitioned between by typing the correct reply, with the text serving mostly to funnel the player through the correct sequence of nodes. This conceptual mismatch makes for a sometimes awkward marriage, and in hindsight it seems clear Disch's script should have been implemented as something closer to hypertext than text adventure. But commercial hypertexts were not yet a thing (Michael Joyce’s pioneering hypertext novel afternoon, a story wouldn’t be published until 1990), and so a text adventure Amnesia became.
The mismatch creates a unique friction when Amnesia bucks the conventions parser games had already established. For instance, some scenes appear to offer movement via compass directions; but you'll end up at the location the next scene takes place in no matter which direction you go. The important thing to Disch was not an accurate simulation of movement on the map, but the idea of the story moving on. Sometimes the game drops you into a vignette where your input is interpreted as something other than a standard command—as speech, for instance; as collaboration, or even as completely irrelevant:
Worse than the ache is the hunger, and worse than the hunger is the fear that you will never leave this cell alive. You begin to scream. You know it will do no good. You'll probably be beaten alive -- but you can't help yourself. You scream the same senseless words over and over, a litany of terror:
open the door
'OPEN THE DOOR'
'OPEN THE DOOR'
'OPEN THE DOOR'
At last your screams attract the attention of your jailer. ...You ask for food. His eyes shrink to pinpoints of sadistic pleasure. 'Why sure, Juanito, you'll get fed -- just as soon as you ask for it so's I can hear you. There's just two little words you got to say, and I'll bring you a nice big bowl of five-alarm chili.' He waits for you to say the two words that will get you fed:
'Sorry, Juanito,' your jailer says, and slams the grill shut. ...Suddenly you understand the meaning of hell. There is no way out.
There is no way out.
There is no way out.
There is no way out.
There is no way out.
A standard game of this era would offer helpful if mood-breaking reports to commands like “open door” (“I can’t see any door here!”) or respond to unrecognized gibberish with an admonition to enter a valid command. Disch’s game, by contrast, refuses to break character. Text games in later eras would experiment with similar techniques (Katherine Morayati's Laid off the from Synesthesia Factory is one interesting example) but this remains a rarely-explored corner of parser design. Typing in a traditional parser game is akin to operating a machine; in these sequences of Amnesia, it's closer to a pure act of writing.
The other major issue with Amnesia's “write first, program later” approach was the size of Disch's manuscript, which was simply too big to fit alongside the code required to make it operational on one or even two 5.25" floppy disks. Studios had experimented with shipping large games on literal stacks of floppies (Sierra's 1982 Time Zone came on six double-sided disks), but by late 1983 the US game industry was entering a devastating crash caused by over-optimism and market saturation, which would result in huge losses for game publishers and a massive scale-back of anything risky or expensive. (The crash was so bad that magazine Computer Gaming World's 1986 “Year in Review” feature opened with a note that there hadn't been one for 1985, a year “so bleak as to make an article like this senseless.”)
Amnesia's development took place right in the midst of this downturn, which meant the game's size was firmly capped at two disks. This in turn meant huge portions of Disch's script had to be cut. And significantly, it wasn't the author who made these cuts: Disch had grown frustrated with the project and stopped participating in its development by the end of 1984, so it was up to Cognetics (and mostly, in all likelihood, young Kevin Bentley) to figure out how to compress the story into half its original footprint. Comparing the released game and the original script reveals the extent of these losses: one finds many places where with more room to breathe, Disch's prose and ideas take on additional depth and resonance. Take an early dream sequence, for instance, as it appears in the game:
You are dreaming.
You are dreaming that you have been asleep and that you wake up to find yourself in a strange hotel. The only light in the room comes from the hotel's gigantic neon light that glows a baleful red outside the window. 'X,' a voice whispers in the crimson twilight, 'X, are you there?'
You know that you are X and that you must answer the voice truthfully, but your mouth is dry, your tongue paralyzed with fear. 'Come here, X,' the voice insists. 'Come here to me, in the mirror.'
Obedient to the voice, you go to the mirror. The figure in the mirror leans forward to peer at you intently. He is dressed all in white, like a bridegroom or a ghost. And though he has no face -- only eyes that stare anxiously from the smooth ovoid of his head -- he smiles, recognizing you. 'Excellent,' he whispers.
This is all of the dream you get in the game: but in Disch's script it goes on far longer. The faceless figure takes you on a journey to a surreal department store where you must ride an escalator up thirteen flights of stairs past increasingly surreal vignettes, losing pieces of your humanity as you go:
"This wont take more than five or six hours," the aged hair stylist assures you. "We simply have to remove all these facial growths and seal these unsightly pores with sealing wax and then fill in these repulsive cavities. My, what large nostrils you have! But with your nose removed they won't be a problem any longer. Then we'll take care of your eyes with some industrial-strength eye-cover. The better stores these days prefer mannequins with perfectly blank faces. Eyes are out, didn't you know that?"
The lack of prose is felt more keenly in the game's best-remembered sequence, the long middle where the player must navigate a massive grid of New York streets to track down leads pointing to their true identity. Disch was a lifelong New Yorker and much of his original manuscript consists of wry observations on both the big landmarks and gritty details of his stomping grounds. Don Daglow, the game's producer at EA, would later remember: “And Tom loved Manhattan! That whole idea of bringing Manhattan to life... Tom talked about it and his eyes would light up, he would be so excited he’d almost be bubbling, because he loved the city so much.” The game represents Manhattan with more than 4,000 separate locations, an astonishing fact touted in its advertising and remembered even today for its ambition. But the sheer size of this terrain meant most of these locations were by necessity empty, a mere listing of cross-streets: an effect made only worse by the need to cut half of Disch's prose.
W. 49th St. and 9th Ave.
W. 48th St. and 9th Ave.
W. 47th St. and 9th Ave.
There is a pizzeria here.
W. 47th St. and 8th Ave.
W. 46th St. and 8th Ave.
W. 45th St. and 8th Ave.
W. 44th St. and 8th Ave.
There is a telephone at this corner.
A smattering of landmarks, restaurants, and phone booths marks this mostly-barren landscape: worse, it was made unnecessarily difficult to explore. Late in the game's development, a system of energy management was added, possibly to allay concerns that navigating this huge grid might feel directionless without more explicit gameplay challenges. The player must frequently buy food and eat or they'll collapse and die from hunger; they must frequently sleep or they'll collapse and die from exhaustion. But money is hard to come by; so the player must spend a good deal of the time they aren't eating or sleeping working menial jobs for cash.
If you think this is all starting to sound depressingly like real life, you're not wrong. The back of Amnesia's box ended up touting features like “Requires money or credit cards to buy food, clothes, hotel rooms, and phone calls... at night stores close, muggers emerge, the evening news is televised.” While this suggests the kind of entertaining simulationism that would later come to define open-world exploration games, in Amnesia the systems are tuned so harshly that even a quick jaunt across town is a potentially fatal proposition, and the constant need to return to a safe place to sleep, or drop a plot thread to panhandle for money, leaches most of the joy out of exploring a virtual Manhattan. IF scholar Nick Montfort has suggested some of these concepts may have been part of Disch's original vision all along, making “a point about the illusion of freedom in early interactive fiction” (though more recent scholarship has suggested this was probably not the case). Regardless, the game became famous for its tedium: Montfort concludes that as a whole it’s largely “not a new type of interactive literary joy but a sort of textual torture device.”
And yet there are many compelling moments in Amnesia, some from Disch and some from his game designer “implementors,” hinting at directions that text adventures never went or foreshadowing gameplay ideas that wouldn't hit their stride until many years later. You can ride a fully functioning subway system through the city along real Manhattan lines, taking your hands off the keyboard to watch the stops come and go in a sped-up version of real time. When washing windshields to make money, the game deploys a procedurally generated description of the results:
A red Buick with a plastic Jesus stops. You wash the windshield. The driver smiles and drives away.
A black Jaguar with an open sunroof stops. You wash the windshield. The drives makes an obscene gesture and hands you 1.00.
A silver Toyota with a dog with a bobbing head in the rear window pulls up. You wash the windshield. The driver makes an obscene gesture and drives away.
Maybe if Disch's more extended prose had made it into the game, maybe if the author had stayed more involved, maybe if publishers had invested more technology and less hype into the concept of living literature, Amnesia might have been a hit. It was not. Disch, in a 1984 interview, saw the failure coming: “I don’t suppose literary people are going to be interested in interactive fiction except as something that they might be able to dismiss in a quick essay as a sign of how we’re all becoming mechanized and alienated.” He didn't think gamers would be much interested in it, either. Infamous '80s reviewer Scorpia summed the game up bluntly: “Terrific prose, nice maps, too much novel, not enough adventure.”
But Amnesia remains compelling for the rare glimpse it offers into a parallel universe of text games: one where story and simulation did a different kind of dance with each other, where real-world challenges could be as engrossing as fantastical ones, and where a parser could aspire to more than merely interpreting a command. Scripted by a gaming outsider, adapted by a young coder with nothing to lose, it took risks few other games at the time were taking. It tried its best to be something genuinely new, and that’s worth remembering.
You can play the original version of Amnesia in an emulator or find Disch’s original manuscript online. In 2021, a new version for the web was created that restores much of Disch’s cut text and offers a more modern interface. Major sources not linked inline include a 1986 interview with Disch in the magazine “Last Wave,” another interview in the 1990 book “Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary Science Fiction Writers,” and Jimmy Maher’s coverage on The Digital Antiquarian. This article debuted in a slightly modified form in the book “Total Amnesia: The Complete Text and Programming Notes of the World's Most Famous Lost Computer Game,” edited by Sarah Smith.